Sunday, June 28, 2009

And The Darker Side

Last Thursday in Ayacucho was a day of rather intense conversation, culminating in me contracting another annoying stomach upset, potentially from any number of sources, which flattened any plans I might have had for Friday.

In the early afternoon I visited the Museo de la Memoria, or ANFASEP as it is more commonly known, which is dedicated to the victims of the conflict of the 1980s and 1990s. None of the reported titles of the parent organisation quite match with the acronym: it is at least the Asociación Nacional de Familiares, but the most common spelling-out mentions Secuestrados, Detenidos y Desaparecidos (kidnapped, arrested and disappeared) adding at least two missing 'd's, while the acronym appears to be stuck with a redundant 'p'.

Quibbling aside, ANFASEP can best be summed up as the Peruvian equivalent of the Argentinian Mothers of the Disappeared. It was first formed in the early 1980s by a group of brave mothers determined to get answers about the whereabouts of their family members who had been snatched from their homes or workplaces, as the state made a scorched-earth response to the Sendero Luminoso uprising. ANFASEP has grown and strengthened steadily through the years, playing a role in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the recent uncovering of the remains of torture victims at the military base of Los Cabitos, about 40km from Ayacucho.

As I was the only visitor apart from a young anthropology student from UF Gainesville who was doing a project on the museum, I was fortunate to be able to have an extended talk with the acting curator, the señora Maribel.

Later, I had a long chat with the señora Ana, who runs a cafeteria in Ayacucho's (to date) only Arequipan-style colonial patio dedicated to commerce and dining. After that, I finally got to meet Ana's mother Celina, who is an anthropologist and has spent years working in development projects with NGOs and government institutions in rural Ayacucho (many thanks to Yalivi in Brisbane for the contacts).


Past Reminders

Tuesday's tourist trip was so pleasant I was starting to create an excessively warm and fuzzy image of the region. Casual conversation with smiling, excessively polite guide Leo on the way back to the city corrected some of that impression. While the city and its surrounds at least have made a remarkable recovery in only a few years, the legacy of its dark past has not disappeared.

Leo said he came from a small village in the south of the department and was about 8 or 9 years old during the worst part of the conflict. At the time, there was basically no middle way between the Senderistas and the military. Any one who was suspected of cooperating with either group ended up dead. There was also the forced recruitment by Sendero Luminoso of children as young as ten or eleven years. The only alternative was to migrate. For Leo, that meant moving to the capital city of Humanga. Thousands of his compatriots travelled further: to this day, several bus services in Ayacucho run direct to the Lima barrios of San Juan de Miraflores and Ate Vitarte, linking with the large immigrant ayacuchana communities there. Leo's seven brothers and sisters are now spread out across various different departments of Peru.

According to Leo, people in the Ayacucho region continue to have considerable sympathy for currently imprisioned former president Fujimori. They see him as having played an important part in ending the terrorist uprising, as well as having personally visited the region and being "the one president to deliver what he promised". Certainly, the one of the most prominent of the many slogans painted on roadside and walls in the region is "Keiko 2011", referring to Fujimori's daughter's likely run for the presidency at the next elections.

Alan Garcia, on the other hand, is close to being in the unpardonable category. During his first term as president, as the Sendero Luminoso uprising was worsening, he is supposed to have said something like: "Ayacucho is full of terrorists; we should just bomb the whole place". I'll write more in another post, but this is the same demagogic, authoritarian streak which many see as ultimately responsible for the recent fiasco, and tragic loss of life, in the northern jungle.


The Musuem of Memory

The ANFASEP museum was on a street corner, in a basic, dimly lit adobe building marked only by the murals painted across its walls. On the first level was a small meeting room lined with school assembly-style benches, while above was a small gallery containing photos, descriptions, and contemporary retablos depicting incidents from the years of conflict. The slogan for the musuem was "so it never happens again". It was by turns sad, poignant, and horrifying.

Although the musuem commemorates victims of both the Senderistas and the military, it has an unashamed focus on those who were detained, kidnapped and disppeared, which were almost exclusively tactics used by the armed forces.

The señora Maribel introduced the displays to me by trying to put into context what happened when the army was called in to respond the the Senderista uprising. For her, the key was language. Unlike in the countryside of Arequipa or Huancavelica where the majority of the population are competent in Spanish, in rural Ayacucho, most people could only speak Quechua. They were thus unable to commuinicate with the army units that were sent to the region, who in turn suspected that the local populations were plotting against them or deliberately speaking in code.

She tried to put herself in the shoes of the young soldiers who were posted into the region during the conflict. "For them, it was like an adventure. But the kind of adventure that could go very wrong".

Maribel had been in the city of Humanga for the entire duration of the conflict. For those who, like me, only have a vague knowledge of the war, it's worth noting that the capital was never actually held by the Sendero Luminoso. However, the descriptions of life during the conflict make it sound rather Baghdad-like: curfews, rationed electricity, explosions in the night, constant fear.

Señora Maribel spoke of hearing an explosion as she was walking down the street one morning and seeing what looked like a "rag doll" fly through the air. It was an eleven-year old boy, recruited by Sendero Luminoso from one of the poor rural communities, who had presumably been on the way to depositing a bomb in some state agency. Trembling with nerves, he would have clutched the device too closely to his stomach, setting it off.

Our conversation diverged on to many other topics, including literature and politics. The señora Maribel was unimpressed with Mario Vargas Llosa, who she said had was "completely limeño" and had a hostile attitude towards Ayacucho, which he had apparently never visited when he was writing his novel Death in the Andes. The novel is set in Ayachucho during the civil war, but is best summed up as an elaborate evocation of costeño paranoia toward the sierra.

She also groaned at my comments of people retaining sympathy for Fujmori. Her account corresponded with my background reading: the defeat of the terrorists had little to do with the government's military response, and was largely owing to a small group of Lima-based police intelligence who had tracked down and arrested leader Abimael Guzman, around whom a cult-like following had developed.

She reiterated the paradox of the Shining Path: its radical Maoist ideology supposedly held that no one was indispensable, yet, after the arrest of Guzman, the whole organisation collapsed "like a pack of cards". She described how Fujimori and Montesinos had ignored and failed to provide support for the police intelligence efforts to track Guzman, but then rapidly tried to take the credit when they were successful.

The señora Maribel poured a little cold water on my comments that the city and its surrounds, at least, appeared to have made a remarkable recovery. "It's mostly on the surface", she said. One of things most lacking for ordinary people was decent health care. Señora Maribel explained that the much-vaunted Seguro Integral de Salud offered only the bare minimum and did not cover many medications or even such acute care as cancer surgery. She described a case of a campesina woman with thryoid cancer who had been unable to acess or afford appropriate medical care, and as a result this eminently curable disease (with generally at least a 95% 5-year relative survival rate) had turned metastatic and was now in its terminal phase. Needless to say, morphine and decent palliative care were not covered either.

Realities of Ayacucho


After the musuem, I stopped by Niñachay, the cafe run by the señora Ana. She met her Ukrainian husband (a quailifed teacher who speaks four languages) working on cruise ships in the Caribbean, and they had narrowly decided not to migrate to Adelaide in favour of staying in Ayacucho until their three year-old son got a little older.

Ana was a lot more at ease in Ayacucho than her husband, but assured me that there was "nothing here" for older kids and adolescents.

She also pre-empted my question about the economy by assuring me that there was "no industry" to compare with Arequipa and that the flashes of wealth around the city were in large part distilled from the compounds of the coca leaf. "Why do you think there are so many banks?", she asked, lowering her voice. She said that a few months previously there had been a group of American soldiers posted in Ayacucho, who had undertaken what she thought was a surveillance mission into the VRAE region. They had come and eaten at her cafe, because she spoke English.

After I ate lunch, Ana kindly gave me directions to her mother's house and called to say I was coming.

The señora Celina was now retired from full-time work had was working on a consultative basis for NGOs and other institutions. She had arrived back from a trip that morning, eight hours away to the south of the department. I sympathised with the journey across rough roads (six hours to or from Cabanaconde wipes me out) and asked if she had travelled by 4WD. A slow smile spread over her face and I corrected myself: "ah, no, by kombi". Working in development has a romantic ring to it, but it takes just one long, bone-jolting journey on Andean roads in public transport to appreciate the real commitment it must take to work for the sparsely-funded organisations to which the señora Celina had dedicated so many years.

Celina gave me a brief overview of the issues affecting the region. The reality for much of Ayacucho, especially the south, is of land without much water, where agriculture remains stuck at subsistence level, plots of land are tiny and scattered, and migration to the city is often the only way to get ahead. As with my previous interlocutors, Celina shook her head about the alluring flow of dollars from the illegal coca economy, with their ugly collateral of entrapment and violence.

I quizzed her on what policies could help the region move forward. The first thing that she mentioned was improved roads into the VRAE region, which would help develop the potential of alternative crops like coffee and cacao, and move the emphasis away from coca.

She also said that she had been working on a project plan for developing leadership among rural women, one of the areas that she saw as very important but that struggled to compete for a budget against more high-profile "ribbon-cutting" projects such as roads and bridges. Another area that could do with more support was reproductive information, which was in demand by campesina women. She said that there had been a big push for reproductive education and family planning in the past (under Fujimori, some of this had its own very dark side), but this had lost emphasis and resources.

She was skeptical of the government's Sierra Exportadora programme, which seems to have fizzled out, and was in any case, ironically directed mainly at crops that grow best on the coast. Instead, she gave props to the Sierra Emprendedora (entrepreneurial sierra) movement, a loose association of local groups aiming to promote the development and marketing of local products, rediscovering and enhancing traditional methods of production

For the development studies students, it's worth noting that you tend to get pretty similar answers when you ask these questions. Basic infrastructure, health and education services, development of skills and leadership -- especially for women -- and assistance for the kind of economic opportunities and market access defined by local people themselves in terms of what they feel they do best.

Even the leaders of the supposedly "radical" groups involved in the protests in the jungle were at pains to state that " we don't oppose investment as such". For all the tortuous philosophical debate about "post development" we engage in in universities, I'm not sure there's massive cultural differences in the things people want from the modern world. It's the human interactions required to achieve these objectives, and particularly the concession of power and resources, that seem to make the process so fraught.

1 comment:

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